A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Why is there sometimes a star in the serial number of U.S. paper money?

Dear Straight Dope:

Today, after inspection of my wallet (this involves money inspection) ((Oh, come on, I DO have a life)) I noticed on one of my $1 bills, that the serial number was: D01381101*

SDSTAFF Wildbabe says, "If you get the one with the star, you can redeem it for a free tootsie pop."

David Feldman, in WHEN DO FISH SLEEP, says that the Bureau of Engraving and Printing starting printing *B and *D in 1910 as prefixes before the serial numbers of replacement notes (it's actually a five-pointed star, not an asterisk). National bank notes did not use the star, they just replaced the old note with a new one with a matching serial number.

Nowadays with notes issued in a series of a hundred million or so at a time, the Bureau doesn't want to track replacement notes.

Lots of errors can occur in the printing process. Too much ink, not enough ink, or unacceptable smears (imagine George Washington with an ink smear moustache), the green/black can be out of alignment, and so forth. With the new 100s, 50s and 20s, there are even more ways things can go wrong.

When a sheet is printed poorly, it is destroyed and replaced. The star enables the Treasury to issue a new set of serial numbers, rather than attempting to reassign all the missing serial numbers of defective notes.

On the rare occasions that a bad printing gets into circulation, the coin-and-bill collectors have fits of ecstasy questing them out.

The serial number Miami cites (like all serial numbers) starts with a prefix letter to identify which of the twelve Federal Reserve districts issued the note. Miami's note starts with D (fourth letter of the alphabet), so was printed at the Fourth District (Cleveland). On Federal Reserve notes, the star substitutes for the letter at the end of the serial number, so the prefix location of the Federal Reserve District is kept intact.

There is one additional use for starred notes. The Bureau of Printing and Engraving uses printers with eight-digit numbering cylinders to produce 100,000,000 notes at a time. But the final note, the one-hundred-millionth note, needs a ninth digit. Rather than bothering to add another digit to the cylinder that would only be used once every hundred million times, the hundred millionth note is a hand-inserted star note.

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